20 January 2010

Christianity in India

Christianity is India's third-largest religion, with approximately 24 million followers, constituting 2.3% of India's population.. St. Thomas is credited with introduction of Christianity in India. He arrived in Malabar in AD 52.

The Saint Thomas Christians, still use the Syriac language (a dialect of Aramaic and so related to the language of Jesus) in services. This group, which existed in Kerala relatively peacefully for more than a millennium, faced considerable persecution from Portuguese evangelists in the 16th century. This later wave of evangelism spread several denominations of Christianity more widely.

Today Christians are found all across India and in all walks of life, with major populations in parts of South India, the Konkan Coast and the North-East. The Christian church runs thousands of educational institutions and hospitals and has contributed significantly in the development of the nation. Most Christians in India are Latin Rite Catholic. The Eastern Rite churches include the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church and the Syrian Orthodox Church, which are prominent in Kerala. Other churches include the Mar Thoma Syrian Church, Church of South India (CSI), the Church of North India (CNI), Indian Pentecostal Church and other evangelical groups.

According to Indian Christian traditions, Saint Thomas arrived in Kodungallur, Kerala and established the Seven Churches and evangelized in present day Kerala and Tamil Nadu.

As with early Christianity in Europe, the initial converts were largely Jewish proselytes among the Cochin Jews who are believed to have arrived in India around 562BC, after the destruction of the First Temple. St. Thomas, who was also a Jew by birth, also spoke the same language, Aramaic. As in the earliest Christian groups (in the near East) the earliest practices mixed many elements of contemporary Judaism.

An early third-century Syriac work known as The Acts of Thomas connects the apostle's Indian ministry with two kings, one in the north and the other in the south. According to one of the legends in the Acts, Thomas was at first reluctant to accept this mission, but the Lord appeared to him in a night vision and said, “Fear not, Thomas. Go away to India and proclaim the Word, for my grace shall be with you.”But the Apostle still demurred, do the Lord overruled the stubborn disciple by ordering circumstances so compelling that he was forced to accompany an Indian merchant, Abbanes, to his native place in northwest India, where he found himself in the service of the Indo-Parthian king, Gondophares. The apostle's ministry resulted in many conversions throughout the kingdom, including the king and his brother.

Critical historians treated this legend as an idle tale and denied the historicity of King Gundaphorus until modern archeology established him as an important figure in North India in the latter half of the first century. many coins of his reign have turned up in Afghanistan, the Punjab, and the Indus Valley. Remains of some of his buildings , influenced by Greek architecture, indicate that he was a great builder. Interestingly enough, according to the legend, Thomas was a skilled carpenter and was bidden to build a palace for the king. However, the Apostle decided to teach the king a lesson by devoting the royal grant to acts of charity and thereby laying up treasure for the heavenly abode. Although little is known of the immediate growth of the church, Bar-Daisan (A.D. 154-223) reports that in his time there were Christian tribes in North India which claimed to have been converted by Thomas and to have books and relics to prove it. But at least by the time of the establishment of the Second Persian Empire (A.D. 226), there were bishops of the Church of the East in northwest India, Afghanistan and Baluchistan, with laymen and clergy alike engaging in missionary activity.

The Acts of Thomas identifies his second mission in India with a kingdom ruled by King Mahadwa, one of the rulers of a first-century dynasty in southern India. Aside from a small remnant of the Church of the East in Kurdistan, the only other church to maintain a distinctive identity is the Mar Thoma or “Church of Thomas” congregations along the Malabar Coast of Kerala State in southwest India. According to the most ancient tradition of this church, Thomas evangelized this area and then crossed to the Coromandel Coast of southeast India, where, after carrying out a second mission, he suffered martyrdom near Madras. Throughout this period, the church in India was under the jurisdiction of Edessa, which was then under the Mesopotamian patriarchate at Seleucia-Ctesiphon and later at Baghdad and Mosul. Historian Vincent A. Smith wrote, “It must be admitted that a personal visit of the Apostle Thomas to South India was easily feasible in the traditional belief that he came by way of Socotra, where an ancient Christian settlement undoubtedly existed. I am now satisfied that the Christian church of South India is extremely ancient... ”.

Although there was a lively trade between the Near East and India via Mesopotamia and the Persian Gulf, the most direct route to India in the first century was via Alexandria and the Red Sea, taking advantage of the Monsoon winds, which could carry ships directly to and from the Malabar coast. The discovery of large hoards of Roman coins of first-century Caesars and the remains of Roman trading posts testify to the frequency of that trade. in addition, thriving Jewish colonies were to be found at the various trading centers, thereby furnishing obvious bases for the apostolic witness.

Piecing together the various traditions, one may conclude that Thomas left northwest India when invasion threatened and traveled by vessel to the Malabar coast, possibly visiting southeast Arabia and Socotra enroute and landing at the former flourishing port of Muziris on an island near Cochin (c. A.D. 51-52). From there he is said to have preached the gospel throughout the Malabar coast, though the various churches he founded were located mainly on the Periyar River and its tributaries and along the coast, where there were Jewish colonies. he reputedly preached to all classes of people and had about seventeen thousand converts, including members of the four principal castes. Later, stone crosses were erected at the places where churches were founded, and they became pilgrimage centres. In accordance with apostolic custom thomas ordained teachers and leaders or elders, who were reported to be the earliest ministry of the Malabar church.

St. Thomas attained martyrdom at St. Thomas Mount in Chennai and is buried on the site of San Thome Cathedral.

India had a flourishing trade with Central Asia, Mediterranean, and Middle East, both along mountain passes in the north and sea routes along the western and southern coast, well before the start of Christian era, and it is likely that Christian merchants settled in Indian cities along trading routes.

The Chronicle of Seert describes an evangelical mission to India by bishop David of Basra around the year 300; this metropolitan reportedly made many conversions, and it has been speculated that his mission took in areas of southern India. According to Travancore Manual, Thomas of Cana, a Mesopotamian merchant and missionary, introduced Christianity to India in 345 AD. He brought 400 Christians from Baghdad, Nineveh, and Jerusalem to Kodungallur. He and his companion Bishop Joseph of Edessa sought refuge under King Cheraman Perumal from persecution of Christians by the Persian king Shapur II. The colony of Syrian Christians, thus established at Kodungallur, became the first recorded Christian community in South India.. A number of historians conclude that Thomas of Cana was confused with the 1st century apostle Thomas by India's Syrian Christians sometime after his death and became their Apostle Thomas in India.

There are also two sets of distinct accounts of Jesus travelling through India. According to the first set of accounts, Jesus traveled and studied in India between the ages of twelve and thirty. According the second set of accounts, Jesus, after his apparent death and resurrection, journeyed to Kashmir to teach the gospel, and then remained there for the rest of his life. The origin of the first set of accounts is attributed to Russian author Nicolas Notovitch who published the book La vie Inconnue du Jesus Christ (The Unknown Life of Jesus Christ) in 1890.

The origin of the second set of accounts is attributed to Kashmiri author Mirza Gulam Ahmed who published the book Masih Hindustan Mein (Jesus in India in 1899. While travel between Middle-East and India was common during those times, these accounts are not given serious thought and treated as speculation since there is no historical account, either in early Christian writings or Indian historical accounts, to either confirm or refute Jesus traveling to India.

Although, the exact origins of Christianity in India may remain unclear, it is generally agreed that Christianity in India is almost as old as Christianity itself and spread in India even before it spread in many, predominantly Christian, nations of Europe.

The Syrian Malabar Nasrani community was further strengthened by various Persian immigrant settlers. The community was Christian-Jewish Knanaya colonies of third century, Manichaeanism followers and the Babylonian Christians settlers of 4th Century, the 7th Century Syrian settlement of Mar Sabor Easo and Proth, and the immigrant Persian Christians from successive centuries. The Kerala Syrian Church was in communion with Syrian Church and was believed to be under the jurisdiction of the Patriarch of Antioch of the Syrians and the Patriarch of Babylonian till the Portuguese arrival in the late 15th century. Bishops came from Syria. They seem to have maintained their identity for a long time in the first few centuries and later amalgamated into one patronized community known differently as Nasrani, Malankara Christians, Syrian Christians.

The South Indian epic of Manimekhalai (The Dancer With the Magic Bowl) written between 2nd and 3rd century BC mentions the Nasrani people by the name Essanis referring to one of the early Christian-Jewish sect called the Nasranis. The embassy of Alfred in 833 CE described the Nestorian Syrian Christians as being prosperous and enjoying high status in the Malabar coast. Marco Polo also mentioned the Nasranis and their ancient church in the Malabar coast in his writings Il Milione.

The total number of Christians in India as per Census in 2001 are 24,080,016 or 2.34% of the population.Majority of Indian Christians are Roman Catholics accounting for a total of 17.3 million members, including 500,000 members of the Syro-Malankara Church and 3,900,000 of the Syro-Malabar Church. In January 1993 the Syro-Malabar Church and in February 2005 Syro-Malankara Church were raised to the status of major archiepiscopal churches by Pope John Paul II. The Syro-Malabar Church is the second largest among 22 Eastern Catholic Churches who accept the Pope as the "visible head of the whole church". The states of Kerala and Tamil Nadu in South India and Nagaland, Mizoram and Meghalaya in North-East India account for 60% of India's total Christian population.

Most Protestant denominations are represented in India, as a result of missionary activities throughout the country. The largest Protestant denomination in the country is the Church of South India, since 1947 a union of Presbyterian, Reformed, Congregational, Methodist, and Anglican congregations with approximately 3.8 million members. A similar Church of North India had 1.25 million members. (These churches are in full communion with the Anglican Communion.) The Mar Thoma Church has 700,000 members, and derives from the Malankara Jacobite Syrian Church, which numbers 1.2 million and is in communion with the Anglicans, but not a full member. In 1961, the evangelical wing of the church came out of Mar Thoma Church and formed the St. Thomas Evangelical Church of India which has 10,000 members. There were about 1,267,786 Lutherans, 648,000 Methodists, and 2,392,694 Baptists in India. Pentecostalism, another denomination of Protestantism, is also a rapidly growing religion in India. It is spreading greatly in northern India and the southwest area, such as Kerala. The major Pentecostal churches in India are the Assemblies of God, The Pentecostal Mission (TPM — founded in 1923.), Indian Pentecostal Church of God (IPC) with 900,000 members. New Apostolic Church founded in 1969, with total adherents of 1,448,209. The New Life Fellowship (founded in 1968) now has approximately 480,000 adherents, and the Manna Full Gospel churches and ministries (founded in 1968 with connections to Portugal) has 275,000. Evangelical Church of India now has over 680 churches with a 250,000 community. Another prominent group is the Brethrens. They are known in different names Plymouth Brethren, Indian Brethren, Kerala brethren. Presbyterian Church of India has 823,456 members.

The Malankara Jacobite Syrian Orthodox Church has 900,000 members, while the Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church has 1,600,000, and the Syrian Orthodox Church of Malabar Rite has 1,200,000 members.

Historically, Hindus and Christians have lived in relative peace since the arrival of Christianity in India from the early part of the first millennium. In areas like Kerala, land to build churches had been donated by the then Hindu kings and Hindu landlords only. The arrival of European colonialists brought about large scale missionary activity in South India and North-East India. Many indigenous cultures were converted to Christianity voluntarily.

Then Hindus who converted to Christianity typically retained their social customs, including caste practices; Dalit Christians make up 70% of India's Christian population. Aggressive proselytizing by Christian missionaries under British rule was a cause of resentment among Hindus and Muslims in the 19th century, who felt that their cultures were being attacked. This was one of the several causes of the Indian Rebellion of 1857 against the British Raj. The role of the Anglican padres and chaplains in that conflict is recounted in William Dalrymple's The Last Mughal Also, many Christian ideals prompted reform movements within the Hindu society in the 19th century, the most notable being the Brahmo Samaj, which was influenced by British Christian Unitarianism. Some Indian Christians have retained Hindu customs and practices, and have combined Hindu customs with Christianity to achieve a unique brand of Indian Christianity.

In more contemporary periods, Hindu-Christian amity is sometimes challenged by partisan politics and extremism from both communities. Christian missionary activity among lower-caste Hindus has created groups of Crypto-Christians, particularly among Dalits. As a response to allegedly aggressive missionary activity four Indian states (Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Himachal Pradesh, and Tamil Nadu) passed laws restricting or prohibiting religious conversion.

In spite of the fact that there have been relatively fewer conflicts between Muslims and Christians in India in comparison to those between Muslims and Hindus, or Muslims and Sikhs, the relationship between Muslims and Christians have also been occasionally turbulent. With the advent of European colonialism in India throughout the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries, Christians were systematically persecuted in a few Muslim ruled kingdoms in India.

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